July 2, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
In a much anticipated and long-awaited ruling, the Texas Supreme Court has done the right thing, albeit the obvious thing as well. The case is entitled In re C.J.C., Relator.
C.J.C. had a six-year relationship with an unnamed mother. They had a daughter, Abigail in 2014. In 2016, C.J.C. and Abigail’s mother split up and he went to court to request custody. The trial court ordered a roughly equal temporary parenting time schedule, but, before the case could be concluded, the mother was killed in an auto accident.
Abigail’s maternal grandparents and the mother’s boyfriend, Jason, petitioned the court for custody of the little girl. C.J.C. resisted, but, in the end, the trial court awarded Jason some limited visitation that increased with time.
C.J.C. complained to the Court of Appeals and then to the state Supreme Court. The lower courts based their rulings on two Texas statutes, one that, in proceedings to modify custody orders, grants standing (i.e. the legal power to bring suit) to non-parents and the other regarding proceedings to modify existing orders (as opposed to establish those orders originally). Texas statute law has long made clear that, like the U.S. Supreme Court case of Troxel v. Granville, there exists a presumption that fit parents act in the best interests of their children. But in the two statutes mentioned above, that presumption is not expressly stated. Therefore, said the lower court, the presumption didn’t apply in C.J.C.’s case and Jason is entitled to some form of court-ordered custody, parenting time and other parental rights.
Such a contention of course directly contradicts Troxel and other U.S. Supreme Court authority. The Texas court briefly summarized that jurisprudence thus:
The United States Supreme Court has long held that the Constitution “protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children.” This recognition stems from “a strong tradition of parental concern for the nurture and upbringing of their children.” The Supreme Court’s jurisprudence rejects “any notion that a child is ‘the mere creature of the State,’” but instead holds “that parents generally ‘have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare [their children] for additional obligations.’” Accordingly, “the custody, care and nurture of the child reside first in the parents, whose primary function and freedom include preparation for obligations the state can neither supply nor hinder.”
A majority of the Troxel Court found protection for this fundamental right—“perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court”—within the Fourteenth Amendment.
In short, if a parent is fit to care for his/her child, the state has no interest in how a child is raised. It may not intervene in the family’s life just because a judge or other official believes parents could do a better job of caring for the child. A parent’s fitness is the key to Troxel and no one in In re C.J.C. contended that Abigail’s father was anything but fit.
Now, from my perspective, that should have been the end of it. Troxel prevented the lower court from intervening in Abigail’s upbringing in the absence of a showing of unfitness on C.J.C.’s part. But the lower court did so anyway when it assigned rights to Jason. Therefore, the lower court ruled wrongly and its order should be overturned. Period.
And that’s what the Supreme Court did. But it did more too. It went into the issue of the two statutes mentioned previously. But as I see it, the Court didn’t need to address them apart from two simple references. As to standing, the issue has no bearing on the case. Whether Jason does or does not have standing to move the lower court for an order needn’t have been discussed. He appears to have standing under the statute, so he can sue, but he just can’t win. His chances of doing so are obviated by C.J.C.’s parental fitness and Troxel.
As to the second statute that has no express “fit parent presumption,” it’s either unconstitutional under Troxel or, more likely, is to be interpreted as constitutional and therefore read in the light of Troxel which mandates a fit parent presumption and prior Texas cases and statutes that evidence a legislative intention to include the fit parent presumption. In either case, the Texas statutes in no way allow Jason any form of parental rights. They’re governed by U.S. constitutional precedent.
All’s well that ends well. Troxel is a good case and the Texas Supreme Court decided this case on the basis of it and previous parental rights cases. The case should never have taken so long nor reached the highest court in the state. The trial court should have read Troxel and known that it more than covered the facts of In re C.J.C., Relator.